To commemorate International Domestic Workers’ Day, Avril Sharp from Kalayaan and Marissa Begonia from the Voice of Domestic Workers discuss the significance of this date for domestic workers, and explain why the UK must restore rights under the UK Overseas Domestic Workers visa if it wants to prevent modern slavery.
Avril: What is International Domestic Workers Day and why do we celebrate it?
Marissa: This is an important date in the calendar for domestic workers as we come together to organise and demand respect and recognition of our work. On 16 June 2011, the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers was adopted. This was a historic victory for over 53 million domestic workers worldwide. This group of workers, who for decades have been neglected and unrecognised, finally have an international instrument that recognises domestic workers as workers and domestic work as work. Since the adoption of this convention, 16 June became International Domestic Workers Day. This date is celebrated every year globally to honour the economic contribution of this workforce that allows other sectors to function.
Marissa: What is the campaign to #restorerights all about? Why is it so important?
Avril: The current visa regime for migrant domestic workers is very restrictive and fuels the exploitation of this workforce. Currently workers are admitted to the UK on visas for a maximum of 6 months. Although on paper they can change employers if they are unhappy or experiencing abuse, the reality is that these workers only have months or weeks remaining on their visa. Many of them do not even have possession of their passport when they escape as they are often confiscated by employers. Without knowing when their visa expires and without the right to renew their visas, these workers are left unable to find safe and decent new jobs. As a result, they become subject to the UK’s hostile environment for migrants and are at risk of further abuse by those looking to exploit their insecure status. The campaign to restore rights is calling on the UK government to reinstate the visa regime in place prior to April 2012, which gave workers fundamental rights including the right to change employer and renew their visa so long as they could demonstrate their labour was still required by an employer and that they could support themselves without recourse to public funds. The campaign is backed by more than 12,000 members of the public who signed a parliamentary petition earlier this year. Kalayaan is the one organisation that has been consistently recording data on the experiences of workers in the UK for the past nine years. This data shows that reported levels of abuse are significantly lower when workers have rights and meaningful options to challenge abuse. This is why it is so important for the UK to reinstate the pre-2012 Overseas Domestic Worker visa.
Avril: Why is it important that migrant domestic workers are involved in advocacy and campaigns like this one?
Marissa: VODW members are experts by experience. We continue to organise, educate and empower workers even during the pandemic. We transformed all our classes and services so we could run them online. The more aware and trained they are, the more they gain confidence to campaign on the front line and be the voice for their own rights. Workers also help to inform and execute our campaigns. With help from Kalayaan, we came up with a social media campaign with the hashtag #ItsNotOk for workers to be able to speak out on how they are trapped by the current visa regime. The graphics in the images below were created by workers themselves in our classes.
Marissa: What was the government’s response to the petition that called for rights to be restored to workers?
Avril: I remember the day we received the government’s response as it came the day after International Women’s Day. My phone woke me with messages from colleagues, supporters and workers saying how upset and devastated they were. The government said in their response that they recognise these workers may face vulnerability to abuse but that the UK have a dedicated process to support victims of modern slavery who entered the UK as a domestic worker. This response is disappointing and frustrating on many fronts. Firstly, it fails to address the need to prevent abuse from escalating to such severe forms of ill-treatment, contrary to the government’s modern slavery prevention strategy. It also does nothing to protect workers who have experienced abuse but are not entitled to statutory support under the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) because the abuse they suffered does not meet the threshold for modern slavery offences. Secondly, it wrongly suggests that workers who enter the NRM are sufficiently supported. In reality, many are denied the right to work for the years they are in this system and are made to live on less than £40 a week which makes them hugely vulnerable to being re-exploited. There is also no guarantee a positive decision will be made at the end of this long and difficult process. Finally and most importantly, the response fails to acknowledge the role played by government in making workers more vulnerable to abuse without the right to renew their visa.
Avril: How can people take action and help stand as an ally for domestic workers?
Marissa: Earlier this year to mark International Labour Day, we held an event and set out our Call to Action asking our supporters to contact their local MP about the government’s response to our petition. We have created email templates which are available on our website for people to use or amend as they like. We are asking supporters to let us know of any response they receive so that we can start to build an alliance of MPs across the UK standing up for migrant domestic workers and the campaign to #restorerights.
Find more about the #RestoreRights campaign and how you can support it here.